43 – THE YEAR IS 383 AD

The last Roman legions are leaving Britain under General Magnus Maximus, that ambitious and ruthless Spaniard, who proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain and launched his bid for imperial power.

For over 400 years Britain had lived under the rule of Rome. It was a land of grey-walled cities, colonnaded buildings and neat red-tiled houses. There were six thousand miles of Roman roads crisscrossing the hills and dales. Ships brought in glassware from Germany and fine wines from Italy. The lead mines in Derbyshire and the tin mines in Cornwall enriched the population. Tax collectors assessed the crops and collected their dues. Britons benefited from a safe and orderly life under the protection of the Rome and its legions stationed around the country.

As Maximus sailed for the Continent with all the best troops on the island, Britain was left entirely defenseless against raids by the Picts in the north and the Scoti in the west – the ancient Gaelic-speaking people of Ireland. Maximus landed his troops in the mouth of the Rhine and then went after the Western Roman Emperor Gratian. He defeated him in battle and his legions entered Rome unopposed. Maximus’ dream lasted five years before he was defeated at the Battle of the Save and at the Battle of Poetovio by the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius. He was captured and executed at Aquileia on the shores of the Adriatic. His legions never returned to Britain, but took refuge in Brittany on the Atlantic coast of Gaul.

What is surprising is that even after the legions had left the island ending Roman rule, the ancient Britons still looked to Rome for help and went out of their way to preserve Roman institutions for almost a century. Ever heard of the Notitia Dignitatum?

Notitia Dignitatum is the most extraordinary document and appears to date from 428 AD. In Latin, it means “List of Offices”. This was the organizational chart of all Roman civil and military posts in the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. It is one of the very few surviving documents of Roman government. Four copies of the lost original were made during the Renaissance from a copy made in the age of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century.

The Notitia Dignitatum shows that the ancient Britons continued to maintain the appearance of Roman control with the nomination of their officers until well into 420 AD. The manuscript goes into detail about the chief civil and military officials of the empire, together with their departmental staffs and, occasionally, their areas of expertise. It lists the names of 46 forts, half of which can be located with reasonable certainty because they match the names from other sources. It includes drawings of the insignia or regimental shield of each magistrate and the fort of each military commander. Remember this is happening some fifty years before the Germanic invaders – the Angles and the Saxons – invaded the island.

42- BURR

In recent weeks I have returned to several of Gore Vidal’s excellent historical novels after I read the extraordinary “Lincoln” novel several months ago and commented on it in my blog. “Burr” is a masterpiece of historical fiction about Aaron Burr’s career in the Revolutionary War and later as Vice President to Thomas Jefferson. No wonder it was on the bestseller list for over 50 weeks after its publication in 1973.

Many of you may have heard interviews with the insufferable “presidential historians” that CNN brings on from time to time to comment on the state of democracy in the US. For Americans, the Constitution is the crown jewel of their democracy. There is an almost holy reverence for the Constitution, the American Revolutionary War and for presidents, Washington, Adams and Jefferson. In “Burr”, we discover just how overrated was the American Revolutionary War and how totally inadequate were those first three presidents. If Former President Donald J. Trump had lived in those times, he would have found those early years to his liking. He would have been able to indulge in just about any corruption that he fancied and to subvert the laws of the land at every turn.

The Revolutionary War was a disaster by any comparison. The dour General George Washington couldn’t win a single battle. His generals eventually turned against him for his sheer incompetence and tried to have him replaced but Washington hung on with support from the Continental Congress and the war was ultimately saved by the French. They arrived with their fleet of ships, their canon and 3,000 soldiers to turn the tide of the war at Yorktown. The only real war heroes were General Gates and his second in command, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who won the Battle of Saratoga against British General John Burgoyne in 1777, and, of course, Aaron Burr who served under Arnold in his attack on Quebec in 1775. Arnold later became a famous traitor when he went over to the British and Burr was tried for treason by President Thomas Jefferson, who by this time was as mad as King George III.

Vidal suggests that no one believed that the constitution drawn up by the Continental Congress would last more than a couple of years and none of the early presidents had any respect for its laws. They realized that James Madison’s text looked lovely on paper, but the Constitution would be impossible to enforce. President George Washington wanted to be the king of the nation and tried to arrest the press barons for publishing negative reviews of his office. The same happened with John Adams who succeeded Washington, but the worst abuse came from the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who launched an impeachment trial in Congress against Justice Samuel Chase who refused to do his bidding.

Chase had served on the Supreme Court since 1796 and was a staunch Federalist with a volcanic personality, who showed no willingness to tone down his bitter partisan rhetoric against the Jeffersonian Republicans. Jefferson wanted him impeached for reasons of drunkenness and insanity. He asked Vice-President Burr to handle the impeachment trial in the senate after the house had voted in favour of Chase’s removal. Under pressure from Jefferson, Burr stuck to his guns and handled the case as fairly as was possible. One Washington reporter remarked: “Burr conducted the hearings with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.” Because of his impartiality, a Democratic-Republican majority voted to acquit the judge on all charges. Hence began the falling out of Jefferson and his vice-president Aaron Burr.


Then there is that famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s old friend during the Revolutionary War, and First Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. Hamilton had been lapdog to General Washington during the war years and later sided with the Federalists in Congress. He was a political muckraker of the worst kind and he was tasked with destroying Colonel Burr’s reputation in his run for public office as Governor of New York. It is surprising to me that they ever made a musical about a man like Alexander Hamilton. In the press Hamilton called Burr a “dangerous man” who ought not to be trusted with public office and went so far as to suggest that there was “something despicable” about his old friend’s relationship to his daughter Theodosia. After Hamilton refused to explain himself to the satisfaction of Burr, Burr challenged him to the famous duel across the Hudson in the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton and was soon charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but the case never went to trial and the charges were eventually dropped.

Perhaps the most stunning event in the novel is the Stalinist show trial of Aaron Burr for treason against the State, a complete fabrication by President Jefferson and his cronies in 1807. After Jefferson had dropped Burr as his running mate for a second term and Burr lost the New York gubernatorial election, Burr left for the west in 1805. While his ambitions remain unclear, his accusers believed that he wanted to steal parts of the Louisiana Territory along with Spanish lands to form an independent nation. Burr’s so-called co-conspirators were British diplomats, Spanish ministers, and even Mexican revolutionaries.

Burr’s real aim had been to mount an attack on Mexico in concert with US Army troops under the command of James Wilkinson stationed in Louisiana. Wilkinson later turned out to be a spy for the Spanish and put in motion a plan to discredit Burr. At the request of Jefferson, Wilkinson produced a letter written by Burr suggesting that he was busy putting together an army to take the Western States out of the Confederation and had plans to attack Washington DC. Jefferson immediately arrested his former vice-president for treason and fed false reports about his plans to the newspapers. At Burr’s trial which dragged on for months in Richmond, Virginia, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall couldn’t find any evidence to prove the case against Burr and was obliged to acquit him for lack of evidence. He argued that Burr had not conspired to break up the Union and had never taken any action against the US government. Despite being acquitted, the trial completely destroyed Burr’s political career and public image.

When one looks back at the early days of the American State, we are appalled by the level of corruption, the electoral fraud, the muckraking, and the greed. A country that invents a posystem as obscure and open to abuse as the Electoral College is bound to be subjected to all kinds of potential fraud and influence peddling. Remember the stolen presidential election of 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans bought the necessary electoral college votes to steal the election from the democrat Samuel J. Tilden after he won the popular vote. In his sequel to “Burr” entitled “1876”, Vidal describes in detail how the Republicans bought the election with money from the railroad lobby who had gotten immensely rich under President Grant’s administration. Today, we only have to look at the mayhem President Trump caused during the January 6 insurrection and his attempt to seize power by manipulating the electoral college vote to realize how precarious democracy is in America.

Vidal’s novels are essential reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the threat to democracy posed by Donald J. Trump and the blatant partisanship in American politics today.


In 1870, when Lt. Gen. Butler at the request of the Canadian government travelled along the North Saskatchewan River on horseback, canoe and later dog sled from Winnipeg to Rocky Mountain House west of Edmonton, he carried with him a supply of smallpox vaccine which Hudson Bay officers administered to the surviving Indian tribes who had been all but wiped out by the disease. Over a period of some fifty years, ninety percent of the Blackfoot, Cree, Dakota, Chipewyan and other tribes in the Saskatchewan region had been killed by the scourge. Smallpox is often called the white man’s disease but it doesn’t care a whit about race or ethnic origin. It is one of the most contagious and loathsome diseases ever to menace humanity. It first appeared in Egypt in the 3rd century BC.

“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. “Blood was its avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.”

The vaccine brought by Butler had been discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796 who had observed that milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox did not catch the smallpox virus. He was able to prove that contact with cowpox had actually inoculated the women against the smallpox virus. By the 1850s, the vaccine was well known and busy saving lives whenever there was an outbreak. Unfortunately, not everyone was in favour of vaccinating the population as is the case today with the COVID vaccine.

The smallpox plague arrived in Montreal by train from Chicago. A Pullman conductor on the Grand Trunk Railway, George Longley, brought the disease with him in February 1885. He arrived feverish and covered with fiery eruptions on his hands, face, and arms. The story is that he was rushed to the Montreal General Hospital where a physician quickly diagnosed him with smallpox but refused to admit him. He then took refuge in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital run by nuns and eventually survived, but his bedding infected an Acadian girl who worked in the hospital laundry. Soon smallpox was rampant among the patients and staff at the hospital and couldn’t be contained. Panic set in and the board of health made a terrible decision. They closed the hospital and discharged all the sick patients setting the virus loose among the population of the city.

At the time Montreal was a sophisticated modern city and the largest in Canada. The medical profession knew all about epidemics and how to contain them. Vaccines were made available to the population and anglophones quickly rushed to get vaccinated. The francophone population on the other hand were immediately hostile to any attempt to help them or contain the disease. As the number of smallpox cases rose, the English newspapers started to sound the alarm. Many anglophone factory owners advocated compulsory vaccination for their francophone staff, leading some workers to view vaccination as a weapon against the French.

Anti-vaccine campaigns were launched in the city. The medical staff at vaccine centres were called “charlatans” and “trying to poison our children” in the press. A famous anti-vaxxer at the time was the respected physician, Dr Joseph Coderre, who spoke out strongly against vaccination in large part because two of his own children had died shortly after being vaccinated by tainted vaccine. He claimed that the smallpox vaccine would not prevent the disease and might give one syphilis. The fact that the city’s original vaccination program had to be suspended due to tainted vaccine did not help the cause.

Montreal soon became known across North America and Europe as a plague city to be avoided at all costs (a bit like Seville and London during the Black Death). As the long hot summer of 1885 dragged on, smallpox victims and their children gathered in the streets with scabs still contagious. Every night bodies were collected and hauled away in wagons to the Côte des Neiges cemetery for burial. Attempts by the public health authorities to enforce vaccination or isolate smallpox victims or even to carry away the dead were often met with resistance and riots. Constables were assaulted as they tried to remove corpses from the worst-infected neighbourhoods. Quebec strongman Louis Cyr was recruited to haul infected tenement dwellers off to the hospitals.

On September 28 an unruly mob stalked the streets hurling stones and denouncing the authorities. The Catholic Church hierarchy eventually came down in favour of vaccination as did French newspapers in the city, but not in time to save large numbers of French Canadians. The Red Death ran its course into November killing more than 5,800 people (around 3% of the population) and disfiguring some 13,000, before it exhausted its supply of unvaccinated hosts. Nine out of ten victims were French Canadians, most of them children.

The vast majority of Montreal’s anglophones were barely touched by the epidemic while the poorer francophone population, who often resisted vaccination, paid a heavy price. “It was the last uncontrolled holocaust of smallpox in a modern city,” wrote Michael Bliss in his 1991 book, Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal. The disease today has become something of an historical curiosity due to vaccination. No Canadian has contracted smallpox since 1944, and with the death of the world’s last smallpox carrier in 1978, the disease appears to have disappeared forever.



It’s amazing how some books come along and really knock you off your feet. “Unsettled” by Steven E. Koonin is one of those monumental works that changes your entire view of environmental issues. Koonin’s book is probably the most important non-fiction work on climate published in the last twenty years. His credentials are impeccable having been a leader in US science policy and professor of theoretical physics at Caltech and a dozen other universities.

Facts matter to me as they should to everyone. I am not a climate denier and I admit to having spent very little time studying climate change. I have a scientific background with a degree in Physics and a Master’s in Physical Chemistry. I remember long ago analyzing the concentration of trace metals in water samples at the INRS in Quebec. As is often the case, the nice curve you are hoping for in your data doesn’t happen because of one odd bit of data that screws up the results. Do you throw out that piece of data so your curve follows an easily identifiable pattern? This is the kind of intellectual dilemma that scientists confront every day. Koonin says we need to be honest about our research and admit when our results are inadequate as they often are in climate science.

Koonin calls the phenomena “climate simple”. Climate scientists will put aside the data that doesn’t meet the persuasion criteria for “climate simple” and hype the data that does. His message is simple. Climate change as expressed in the media is a lie. The human influence on climate is so minimal, it is almost impossible to quantify in climate change models and data. Greenhouse gas emissions have had an almost negligible effect on the warming of the planet. The CO2 in the atmosphere was five or ten times higher 300 million years ago. He sums it up in the following lines: “That the computer models can’t reproduce the past is a big red flag – it erodes confidence in their projections of future climates…. It greatly complicates sorting out the relative roles of natural variability and human influences in the warming that has occurred since 1980.”

Koonin knows that he will be attacked in the media for his opinions, but he has put together a very impressive piece of work. He questions “the Science” and the alarming media reports about surging sea levels, shrinking ice caps, and worsening heat waves, storms, droughts, floods and wildfires. According to Koonin, “heat waves in the US are no more common today than they were in 1900s, humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the last hundred years, Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was 80 years ago, and finally the net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal to the end of the century.”

Koonin exposes the intellectual dishonesty of climate scientists and the scientific community in general. Scientists don’t tell “the whole truth plainly”. They like to present their work as complete with data that proves their hypotheses to colleagues and to the media, but there is no certainty in climate science. “The Science” is not settled, far from it,” says Koonin.

Today, climate alarmism is taking over the world. The Greens are a politically active group in many European countries and US Democrats now have their own Green New Deal which will fight climate change with government subsidies. If the climate is not changing significantly and human activity is not affecting climate in any adverse way, then Western nations will not need to spend a huge amount of money to change their economies in the hope of reducing greenhouse gases in the short term. We can all breathe a sigh of relief and perhaps concentrate our energies on other environmental problems such as plastic waste, the use of pesticides and the pollution of the oceans. We can say goodbye to carbon taxes and keep our gas-guzzling cars and trucks for a couple more years before we trade them in for electric vehicles. We will no longer need to feel threatened by climate change alarmists such Greta Thunberg, the poster child of the movement.

Koonin talks about institutional pressures to stick to the message: “I know from experience that such institutional pressures are real; whether you are working for the government, a corporation or an NGO, there is a message to be adhered to. For academics, there is pressure to generate press and to secure funding through grants. There is also the matter of promotion and tenure. And there is peer pressure: more than a few climate contrarians have suffered public opprobrium and diminished career prospects for publicizing data that doesn’t support the “broken climate” meme.” He goes on with the following: “Whatever its cause, climate simple is a problem. Major changes in society are being advocated and trillions will be spent, all based on the findings of climate science. That science should be open to intense scrutiny and questioning, and scientists should approach it with their usual critical objectivity. And they shouldn’t have to be afraid when they do.”

Steven Koonin’s book should be required reading for scientists and engineers, but also for the general public. The book represents a reality check offering the truth about climate science that you won’t get anywhere else – what we know, what we don’t and what it all means for our future.


Many of you have seen the excellent “Crown” mini-series on Netflix and are curious about Britain’s post-war economic problems which plagued the government in the 1960s and 70s. The economic costs of the war were enormous. Six years of warfare and the heavy losses of merchant shipping were bad enough, but Britain lost a sizeable chunk of its export trade after the war. Gold and currency reserves were depleted and most of Britain’s overseas assets were sold off. The situation got so bad that after the Lend-lease program was terminated, Britain had to borrow an additional $3.75 billion from the US at two-percent interest to pay for essential supplies. The trade imbalance with the US was so unequal that the government was obliged to extend rationing to preserve their supply of US dollars to service the debt repayments. British goods and produce were prioritized for export markets and rationing continued on until 1954.

Even grants for British industry from the Marshall Plan were used to service debt repayments. Over time, this put British industry at a major disadvantage because their French and German competitors used the money to invest in infrastructure and modernize their own industries while Britain did nothing. Germany and France may not have won the war and, of course, both were devastated by the war, but they certainly won the peace.

After WWII, the British government owed £21 billion (C$36 billion) for its war loans. Today, that debt would be worth some £940 billion (C$1.6 trillion). It took the British government exactly sixty years to reimburse the war debt with a final payment of £45 million in 2006. Remember the Montreal Olympic fiasco in 1976. The 1970 estimate for the Games was that it would cost C$120 million in total, with C$71 million budgeted for the Olympic Stadium itself. In reality, it cost C$1.6 billion, a more than 13-fold increase, due to poor planning, incompetence, outright fraud, strikes and hubris. It took the Quebec government some thirty years to reimburse the cost of this mega disaster mainly from cigarette taxes.

Canada has had its share of boondoggles. In fact, we are champions in project overruns for infrastructure projects. Remember the Mirabel airport, the 407 Express toll road, B.C.’s fast ferries, the new Champlain bridge project, the Muskrat Falls hydro-electric project, the Montreal REM public transit system, and, perhaps to come, the Quebec City tramway project which is estimated to cost C$3.3 billion to upgrade an already excellent public transport system by bus. In recent months, the Canadian government has embarked on a colossal boondoggle which will make all the others look like chump change. It has chalked up an amount of debt to the tune of around C$400 billion within a single year to pay for relief measures for the coronavirus pandemic. Every day of the week it is spending around C$1.8 billion, more than the cost of the 1976 Olympic Games. The COVID pandemic is not yet over and will continue well into 2022, the time to inoculate some 70% of the population.

The question is how long will it take us to reimburse such a load of debt. Interest rates are low today, but inflation will increase the cost of borrowing when we come out of the COVID cloud. It would not surprise me if it takes fifty years for our government to reimburse such a huge amount and the final cost might be above C$4.4 trillion if interest rates return to a healthy 5%. What will happen if we are involved in a costly war or a second pandemic with a high R0 number (like measles at 12 to 18). We won’t have any funds left to provide economic relief to our citizens.

The spendthrift Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has promised not to raise taxes in 2021 and the NDP under Jagmeet Singh is counting on a wealth tax on Canadian assets to help balance the budget. Rich families would be taxed 1% on wealth exceeding C$20 million annually. The Parliamentary Budget Office has estimated that a wealth tax would bring in C$5.6 million in 2020/21 increasing to C$6.8 million in 2023/24. A drop in the bucket, enough to pay for about 3 days of our government’s expenses. Furthermore, there has been no cutting back in government services and expenses over the last twelve months. This is the first thing that happens in private enterprise when a company is losing money or hit with unforeseen expenses. You reduce your costs by sending out pink slips. You reduce your overhead and your work force. Not so with government. There is no talk about increasing income tax, sales tax, property taxes, etc. What would Tommy Douglas think of all this? He was a democratic socialist and Premier of Saskatchewan for 17 years. He invented government-funded health insurance in 1947 and paid off the provincial debt by putting aside 10% of the provincial budget each year to pay off the debt. Where are the Tommy Douglas’s in government today?

Where will all this lead? No one in government is serious about our increasing debt load. In the future our grandchildren may have to ration food to get by as they pay off the massive loans of our national and provincial governments.



It is very frustrating to see the mob who ransacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, get up to twenty years in prison and pay huge fines, while Trump and his political cronies walk away without any charges. Many of these people are going to face a judicial saga totally out of proportion to their misbehaviour. Of course, some were bent on violence and will have to pay for their crimes, but most of them were simply naïve Pro-Trumpers having a good time in D.C. Meanwhile the Senate trial of Donald Trump is not even a criminal trial. The ex-President loses nothing but his right to hold public office again, if he is convicted. The question is whether the DOJ in Washington will charge Trump and his political cronies of seditious conspiracy, election fraud, and insurrection.

He certainly committed seditious conspiracy “by forcing to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.” This is the text of Title 18 of the US criminal code which deals with sedition. It is clear that Trump and his cronies crossed several red lines here. His aim, of course, was to prevent the registration of the votes in Congress and to seize the Capitol building to force out Nancy Pelosi and the democrats. Clearly the people on the ground, the mob who invaded the Capitol, are going to pay a very heavy price for their actions. The federal government doesn’t mess around when it comes to arresting and charging the small fry.

But what about John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Gosar, Mo Brooks, Andy Biggs, Ali Alexander? These are the guys who organized the “Stop the Steal” movement and planned the DC rally. They encouraged the protesters to sack the Capitol. They have declined to comment on their actions during the riot and today are playing hard to find.

There have been numerous cases of sedition in the US and Canada. The sedition act was used against communists, neo-Nazis and terrorists like the prominent Muslim cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman in 1995. The government used it against the Puerto Rican Nationalist Carmen Valentin Perez and nine others for attempting to overthrow the government of the United States and were handed down sentences of up to 90 years in prison. The sedition conspiracy act was used in Canada after the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 to lock up seven labour leaders who were convicted of trying to topple the government. The sedition laws were used to lock up the Mayor of Montreal Camillien Houde in 1940 when he campaigned against conscription. He had publicly urged young men to ignore the National Registration Act. He was placed under arrest for sedition and confined without trial in internment camps in Petawawa, Ontario and Ripples, New Brunswick until the end of the war.

Sedition is a crime against the State and was thought to have serious consequences. The use of treasonable words in the Middle Ages could lead to peasant revolts against the monarchy and one could be hanged or beheaded if convicted. Today, in the US it seems anybody with political affiliations or great wealth can simply ignore the laws of sedition and hide behind their First Amendment rights to free speech. Only the little people pay the price of sedition.

According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, it would not be easy to prove a case of seditious conspiracy in court against Donald J. Trump. Election fraud, on the other hand, would be a slam dunk according to the authors. Trump tried to force Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, to find enough votes to overturn the election in Georgia in his favour. The entire phone call was recorded and released to the news media. Legal scholars described it as a flagrant abuse of power and potentially a criminal act. The question is when is the DOJ in Washington going to get its act together and go after Trump and his cronies.


I don’t know whether any of you are fans of The Borgias television series which stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI. I’m a big fan and have seen most of the episodes either in French or in English. In the first episode, which I saw the last week (I don’t always get to watch the series in chronological order), Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is busy bribing the other cardinals to get their vote for the election of the new pope. After Rodrigo becomes pope and starts poisoning his enemies, he has to pass a crucial test for the papacy.

When I saw this scene at the end of episode 1, I thought it was a joke. The Pope is invited to sit on a sort of wooden seat with a hole in the middle while his cardinals look on. A servant brings a bowl of water and my first impression was that he was going to wash the Pope’s feet, but no, the servant gropes the pope’s undercarriage and then exclaims in a loud voice: “habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes” meaning he has two well-hung testicles.

I couldn’t believe they were checking to make sure the pope was a man and had not been castrated heaven forbid. It appears that the test was introduced after Pope Joan’s ascension to the papacy in the 9th century. A German woman, Agnes, managed to get herself elected as “Pope John”. Her subterfuge was only learned when she gave birth in a procession to St John Lateran between the Colosseum and the San Clemente Basilica in Rome.

It is believed that the test is still employed today. Men who had deliberately castrated themselves were not acceptable as good pope material, but those who had been involuntarily castrated were acceptable.

The reference for this historical nugget is Alain Boureau’s “The Myth of Pope Joan”. The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the masculinity test were collected together in 1600 by the German scholar Johann Wolf in his book: “Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter.”

Talk about a fascinating piece of history.

Have a nice week.




This week I am finishing up my screenplay “Johnny Reb in Montreal” about the manhunt across the province of Quebec of Lt Bennett Young and his Confederate soldier friends. This is the story of the St. Albans, Vermont raid and the trial in Montreal of the Confederate raiders. After being released from the Pied-du-Courant prison in Montreal in December 1864, the lieutenant and his men were re-arrested just before Christmas on the border with New Brunswick.

Take a look at this map of the Central Vermont Railroad in 1879. It’s quite amazing the rail network that existed in Quebec at the time thanks to the Grand Trunk Railway Company. For instance, you could travel from Portland, Maine through Montreal all the way to Sarnia, Ontario in the 1860s. The Portland track was built to give Montreal access to a seaport during the long winter months when the St. Lawrence River was frozen up. You could take a train from just about anywhere in the Eastern Townships to Montreal and east to Rivière-du-Loup and south through Vermont to New York or Boston or west to Buffalo. Of course, there was no railway to Quebec City or on to Halifax until much later. These were mainly narrow track railways and the number of rail companies is amazing.

While I was doing my research for the screenplay, I had to take into account all the travel possibilities available to the lieutenant at the time. One author describes George Brown, the owner of the Globe Newspaper and one of the fathers of the Canadian Confederation, returning to Toronto from London after meeting with British Prime Minister Palmerston. After a two-week transatlantic voyage, Brown arrived in New York City and the following day was back in Toronto. I asked myself whether this was possible at the time. Today, it would not be possible by train, but only by air. In 1865, Brown could have taken the train from New York to the top of the state and then gone west to Buffalo which was connected to Windsor and Toronto. Or he could have chosen to go north through Montreal and then west. The Victoria Bridge in Montreal had been built in 1859 to carry the passenger trains across the river.

When you ponder public transportation in and around Montreal today, there has been little or no improvement since 1860. Remember they had horsecars (horse-drawn tramways) in Montreal at the time which were precursors of the motorized streetcars that came later. You could travel just about anywhere by train. It is not surprising that Quebeckers fell in love with the Maine seaside since you could take a train to Portland and on to Old Orchard and other seaside ports, travelling through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

Have a nice week.

See photo of a Toronto horsecar below:


In the summer of 1485, at the start of the reign of Henry VII, a previously unseen  disease started to spread across England. It was believed that it was brought to England by French mercenaries in Henry Tudor’s army. Henry Tudor arrived in London shortly after the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 and the ‘sweating sickness’ was first reported there less than three weeks later. It ran rampant through London, killing thousands and striking panic in the population. One of the most terrifying features of the disease was the speed with which it could kill. Some of you may remember the moving scene in Hilary Mantel’s novel and the television drama mini-series, Wolf Hall, when the disease struck the family of Thomas Cromwell. He returns home to find his wife and two young daughters are dead hours after catching the disease.

The cholera epidemic of 1832 was similar to the “English sweat” that afflicted Londoners and Europeans during the time of the Tudors. People were terrified by the horrific symptoms which seemed to afflict victims instantly. People caught the bug in the morning and were declared dead by supper time. There was no known cure for cholera and the sense of panic among the population was palpable. When our loved ones are struck down by illness within hours, we lose our heads and any rational sense of order. Fear leads to panic and the breakdown of society. Family members turned against family members, friends against friends, and soon everyone was out for themselves. Cholera victims were simply abandoned on the roads, and wagons were sent around to collect the bodies and bury them in cholera pits. The population lived in absolute fear of the epidemic and normal rules no longer applied.

The collapse of society often happens in cases of natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, etc. What do people do when things start falling apart? They revert to primal behaviour, every man for himself. That’s the theme of The Walking Dead. At least that’s the theory, but it is not always true. Remember the movie Lord of the Flies based on the novel by William Golding back in 1954 about a group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. It presents a very bleak view of mankind, returning to nature. The boys form into groups and three boys die as a result before a British naval officer arrives on the island and saves them. The story was loosely based on a real adventure involving several young Tongan boys stranded on an island in the Pacific and things didn’t turn out so badly for these boys. Their story was more about friendship and loyalty. They worked together to survive and no one died.

Of course, the breakdown of society can happen even today with an economic downturn. For years now, people have been predicting an economic collapse in the US due to the huge debt level. If the US dollar ever takes a dive, there will be a global panic. The doomsayers maintain that massive unemployment would be the result and governments would no longer be able to pay their employees. Local communities would suffer because their tax base would disappear. They would no longer be able to pay their police departments, garbage disposal, and other services. People would take to the streets to protect themselves and fight over access to food and supplies. The 2020 coronavirus is bringing us closer to such a reality with the burgeoning debt levels in the US and the stress on the dollar.

My fourth novel Remembrance Man is now out on paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. This is a tale of murder, greed and deceit, and the breakdown of society. It is interesting to see how little progress civilized society has made in the face of pandemics. We deal with them no better than our grandparents did during the influenza outbreak of 1918 and the 19th century cholera epidemics.

Have a nice week.


I remember visiting the HMS Victory in Portsmouth as an English schoolboy. The Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson’s heroic demise had everything to attract the interest of young English boys. So it is not surprising that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Patrick O’Brian naval war novels about the adventures of Captain Aubrey and his surgeon friend, Dr Maturin. I recently finished the eighth in the series, The Ionian Mission, about Captain Aubrey’s service with the British squadron blockade of Toulon in 1813. To entertain the men on board Aubrey’s ship, the Worcester, an oratorio was organized using whatever musical talents were available among the crew. After a search, it was revealed that five young lads from Lancashire were word-perfect in Handel’s Messiah, having sung it numerous times in their homeland. O’Brian provides such a wonderful image of these poor lads on board a man-of-war during the Napoleonic wars:

They were poor thin little undernourished creatures with only a few blue teeth among them, though young: they had been taken up (by the press gang) for combining with others to ask for higher wages and sentenced to transportation; but as they were somewhat less criminal than those who had made the demand they were allowed to join the Navy instead. They had gained by the change, particularly as the Worcester was a comparatively humane ship; yet at first they were hardly aware of their happiness. The diet was more copious than any they had ever known. Six pounds of meat per week (though long preserved, bony and full of gristle), seven pounds of biscuits (though infested) would have filled them out in their youth, to say nothing of the seven gallons of beer in the Channel or seven pints of wine in the Mediterranean; but they had lived so long on bread, potatoes and tea that they could scarcely appreciate it, particularly as their nearly toothless gums could hardly mumble salt horse and biscuit with any profit. What is more, they were the very lowest form of life on board, landlubbers to the ultimate degree – had never seen even a duckpond in their lives – ignorant of everything and barely acknowledged as human by the older men-of-war’s men – objects to be attached to the end of a swab or a broom, occasionally allowed, under strict supervision, to lend their meagre weight in hauling in a rope. Yet after the first period of dazed and often seasick wretchedness they learnt to cut their beef right small with a purser’s jackknife and pound it with a marlin-spike; they learnt some of the ways of the ship; and their spirits rose wonderfully when they came to sing.

The O’Brian novels provide an extraordinary glance into our nautical past and are rich in imagery.